I’ve Said Goodbye to ‘Normal.’ You Should, Too.
I remember last March, in the first throes of the pandemic, when normal was upended. Everything shut down. We hoarded toilet paper and pasta. Fear gripped the nation.
I was afraid, too: I was afraid for my mother, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I was afraid for my sister, whose husband works in a prison. I was afraid for my cousin, who’s a nurse. I was afraid for my country, under the leadership of an incompetent and seemingly deranged president.
But along with the fear, I remembered a lesson I’d learned in Iraq. I’d been a soldier in Baghdad in 2003-2004, where I saw what happens when the texture of the everyday is ripped apart. I realized that what we call social life was like a vast and complex game, with imaginary rules we all agreed to follow, fictions we turned into fact through institutions, stories, and daily repetition. Some of the rules were old, deeply ingrained and resilient. Some were so tenuous they’d barely survive a hard wind.
What I saw in Iraq was that every time you shock the system, something breaks. Sometimes those breaks never heal. There’s no way we can undo the damage we did to Iraq or bring back the lives lost to Covid. But sometimes those breaks are openings. Sometimes those breaks are opportunities to do things differently.
In March last year, watching an unknown plague stalk the land, I felt fear, but I also felt hope: the hope that this virus, as horrible as it might be, could also give us the chance to really understand and internalize the fragility and transience of our collective existence. I hoped we might recognize not only that fossil-fuel-driven consumer capitalism was likely to destroy everything we loved, but that we might actually be able to do something about it.
As the pandemic has worn on, the desire to get back to normal has increased, and I worry that the hope for radical positive change has subsided. But we must not let it dissipate. We can’t afford to. Because we won’t see “normal” again in our lifetimes. Our parents and grandparents burned normal up in their American-built cars, with their American lifestyles, their American refrigerators and American dreams. And now China and India are doing it, too, because capitalism is global, and we sold it wherever we could. More than three-quarters of all industrial CO2 emissions have occurred since 1945, and more than half have occurred since 1988 — since we knew what global warming was and what a danger it posed.
Now, as a new administration takes office and we look ahead to life after both Covid and Donald Trump, we need to face the fact that the world we live in is changing into something else, and that coping with the consequences of global warming demands immediate, widespread, radical action.